It is well nigh impossible to offer an appreciation of Pope Benedict XVI’s theological accomplishments in a short column. But on the occasion of his resignation, perhaps a few of his noteworthy achievements can be highlighted.
Although we are formally speaking of Benedict’s initiatives as pope, it is probably best to discuss the theological body of work he produced from 1981 to 2013, rather than simply his last eight years as bishop of Rome. For if one conjoins his papacy with his long service as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then his lasting theological legacy comes into sharper focus: For over thirty years, Benedict has effectively served as the chief interpreter of the Second Vatican Council.
A century hence, theologians and historians will look back on this period as a crucial one for the reception of Vatican II. And the role of Joseph Ratzinger, who wrote scores of official magisterial documents on all aspects of conciliar teaching, will be underscored. While these statements usually fall far short of infallible teaching, and remain open to continued theological discussion, they nonetheless carry significant weight in Catholic theology.
Just a cursory and incomplete review of documents emanating from Ratzinger’s pen shows the depth of his influence as a conciliar interpreter. He has authoritatively taught on issues that have been widely discussed since the council’s conclusion: the unique nature of priestly ministry (1983); the strengths and weaknesses of liberation theology (1984 and 1986); the precise meaning of the claim that the Church of Christ “subsists in” the Catholic Church (1985); the assent required for specific magisterial teachings (1995 and 1998); the proper understanding of the phrase “sister Churches” (2000); and the declaration Dominus Iesus on the salvific universality of Jesus Christ (2000).
Benedict’s role as conciliar interpreter came even more vigorously to the fore with his Christmas Address of 2005, a speech that will likely remain the Ground Zero of conciliar discussions. There, the pope definitively rules out “a hermeneutic of rupture and discontinuity” as well as any antipodean reading of the spirit and text of the council. He explicitly proscribes a method that would seek to discover “impulses toward the new” apart from the conciliar documents themselves.
At the same time, Benedict endorses not a naive continuity of pre- and post-conciliar Catholicism, but a “hermeneutic of reform” recognizing that Vatican II sanctions “different levels” of continuity and discontinuity. Surely anyone who studies the council’s teachings on ecumenism and religious liberty must acknowledge a certain discontinuity with earlier ecclesial statements. Benedict’s 2005 address remains a deeply thoughtful and effective speech that will likely govern conciliar hermeneutics far into the future.
With Benedict’s departure from the See of Peter, the great event of twentieth-century Christianity now enters a new phase of reception. John Paul II was an episcopal voting member at Vatican II. Benedict was a young peritus, actively involved in the discussion of the documents. The next pope will almost certainly have had no direct involvement in the council. But he will be deeply shaped—as will those who come after him—by Benedict’s interpretation of the conciliar texts.
There were other theological initiatives undertaken by Benedict that were surely inspired by the council, such as the establishment of the Anglican Ordinariates. Vatican II had, at several junctures, encouraged legitimate and authentic pluralism. One well-known passage in the decree on ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, states, “While preserving unity in essentials, let all members of the Church . . . preserve a proper freedom in the various forms of spiritual life and discipline, in the variety of liturgical rites, and even in the theological elaborations of revealed truth.” The decree insists that a proper plurality will give “ever richer expression to the authentic catholicity of the Church.” No doubt, Benedict saw the establishment of the Ordinariates as a significant fruit of Vatican II—a legitimate pluralism that enriches the unity of the Catholic faith.
As might be expected from a former theology professor, Benedict was insistent on the conjunctive relationship between faith and reason. One can see this theme shining through his deftly crafted addresses on the Fathers of the Church as well as on the great medieval theologians. His badly misunderstood Regensburg Address had this same synthetic goal: to caution Islam that passionate faith untempered by critical reasoning would end in disaster, while warning the West that technocratic rationality heedless of man’s transcendent nature would lead to similarly destructive results.
This careful thinking about the traditional dyad of reason and faith was equally on display in the pope’s speeches about nature and grace. When Benedict traveled abroad, his most interesting talks were often delivered to civil authorities. He would endorse the legitimacy of the secular state, while concomitantly arguing that authentic secularity must acknowledge the transcendence of the human person. A laicité positive or “healthy secularism” turns poisonous and degrading when the civil state tries to silence the Church’s voice, thereby obscuring the indefeasibly spiritual dimensions of humanity.
These are simply a few “theological highlights” marking the thoughtful work of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI. Needless to add, such appreciation does not mean that Benedict’s corpus escapes all theological criticism. For example, in the declaration Dominus Iesus, Ratzinger strongly affirms basic truths of the Christian faith, such as the definitive and unique character of the revelation given in Christ Jesus. But he overlooks the considerable progress in ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue that has occurred since Vatican II, progress that, in its own way, is reflective of biblical truth. And while Benedict proclaimed 2009 to 2010 the Church’s “year of the priest,” he failed to issue any probing theological document on this crucial but currently embattled office.
Despite these limitations, Benedict’s papacy (and prefecture) has yielded a rich and long-lasting harvest of theological thinking. Not every bishop of Rome is a great theologian. But the Catholic Church was profoundly blessed to have had in Benedict a pope who was both an extraordinary thinker and a deeply spiritual pastor.
Rev. Thomas G. Guarino is professor of systematic theology at Seton Hall University and co-chair of Evangelicals and Catholics Together.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.